Thursday, December 31, 2015

What is the Nature of Liturgical Time?

The first issue of Liturgy for 2016 has as its theme for all of the articles what the Guest Editor, David Turnbloom named “Embodied Listening” – listening to God’s Word. The Liturgical Conference chose this theme because we felt the Church has arrived at a point when it is helpful to review the importance of the Vatican’s document, Dei Verbum. We ask what the liturgy does to enable God’s Word to be heard.

John Baldovin addresses this question with regard to how the liturgy evokes a sense of time. How does the liturgy make the future present? What follows here is from the section in his essay on liturgical time itself.
In his very influential book, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, the late Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann deals with the relation between past and future in the celebration of the Eucharist in particular. He has this to say: “The event which is ‘actualized’ in the Eucharist is an event of the past when viewed within the categories of time, but by virtue of its eschatological, determining, completing, significance it is also an event which is taking place eternally.” [p. 57]
 Schmemann is highlighting here the traditional theme of the heavenly liturgy initiated in the Old Testament Book of Daniel and then employed in the Letter to the Hebrews and especially the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. The real liturgy is in a sense being celebrated in heaven and what we do on earth is brought into it.
 In his posthumously published book, The Eucharist, Schmemann employs the same idea of the eschatological heavenly liturgy to counter what he considers the Western preoccupation and obsession with the exact moment of consecration at the Eucharist. For him the fact that the liturgy transcends our normal experience of time obviates the necessity of pinpointing such moments. [pp.128-131] 
This idea is mirrored in the traditional Canon of the Roman Mass by the words: “[C]ommand that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.” [pp. 67-78]
 To confine this notion to the premodern three-story universe would be a mistake. The heaven to which Schmemann is referring is not a place but a dimension of reality. Perhaps it could be compared to the parallel worlds constructed by writers like C. S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia or Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials, in which, as if through a veil, we get a glimpse of an alternative world. The use of the icon screen with its openings and multiple appearances (epiphanies) in the Byzantine Divine Liturgy lends itself to this idea. 
Thus the opposition between an eschatological and historical understanding of time divided by the “Constantinian Revolution” of the fourth century and supported by Gregory Dix in his classic Shape of the Liturgy needs to be discarded. Christian liturgy has always also been concerned with the “time of this world,” to use Schmemann’s vocabulary. The earliest celebration of a yearly Pascha—the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ—was celebrated on a specific calendar day, the fourteenth of Nisan according to Jewish reckoning. The annual anniversaries of the deaths of martyrs were kept carefully and observed with the celebration of the Eucharist at their graves. [See Thomas Talley in Worship 47 (1973)] On the other hand, even the addition to the liturgical calendar of a number of feasts like Christmas, Epiphany, and the Ascension never completely eclipsed the eschatological dimension of the liturgy. . .

John F. Baldovin, S.J., teaches at Boston College School of Theology & Ministry, Boston, Massachusetts.

John F. Baldovin, S.J., “The Future Present: The Liturgy, Time, and Revelation,” Liturgy 31, no. 1 (2016), 19-25.

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